Thursday, November 08, 2007

Kentucky's schools: a new reality

Former Owensboro Mayor and current President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Dave Adkisson has an Op-Ed in the Courier-Journal supporting the idea that Kentucky has indeed made progress as measured by the recent Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center study.

For the past two years, I've traveled the state and talked to hundreds of business, education, political and community leaders, and I've tried to get a handle on whether we've made progress in education and, if so, how much. That has proved to be a difficult task. I have concluded that, as average Kentuckians, we simply don't know.

A conversation about educational progress (or lack thereof) can quickly become a mind-numbing discussion of test scores, which test scores, funding, spending, accountability, governance and other matters. For the 99.9 percent of us who are not professional educators, our eyes quickly glaze over, and we end up bewildered, not knowing whether we've made progress or not.

One news story about ACT scores sounds pretty good, and then we hear how few Kentucky workers have a bachelor's or associate degree. We don't know whether to feel good or feel bad.

The recent release of a study by the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center sheds a bright light on the question of progress and, more important, offers reason for hope and optimism.

The LTPRC took 11 major national rankings that are widely accepted as important measures of student achievement, combined them into a single index and charted them from the early 1990s through 2005, the latest year for which the rankings
are available.

Dramatic findings

What the combined index reveals is dramatic. Kentucky has made impressive progress in education, and we have clearly moved out of the bottom tier and toward the middle of the pack of all states. Overall, we moved from 43rd in 1992 to 34th in 2005. The move is even more impressive when we look at what happened to some other states, especially those who shared the basement with Kentucky in 1992: Alabama moved from 48th to 46th.

Mississippi moved from 50th to 48th.

North Carolina -- often cited as an example of what Kentucky should try to be -- began in 42nd place and moved up to 35th, one slot below Kentucky.

Other recent reports support the positive conclusions about Kentucky: Our fourth and eighth graders are performing above the national average in science and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation's report card. Education Week's Quality Counts 2007 Achievement Index ranks Kentucky at 34th, and the Morgan Quitno 2006-07 Smartest State Index ranks Kentucky at 31st.

This is huge!

Kentucky's schools have made major gains in less than one generation. And we have proved that with a concentrated and sustained public effort to help all students learn at high levels, our schools can -- and do -- improve.

The gains are even more impressive when considered against the backdrop of Kentucky's high poverty level, the influx into our public schools of thousands of immigrants (many of whom are still learning English) and the low education levels of our adult population. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently gave Kentucky a "B" in its national report card for "return on investment."

In other words, for the tax dollars we're investing into education, we're getting a good dividend in student achievement.

Are there areas that still need attention?

Absolutely. I don't think many of us are going to rush out and paste "We're No. 34!" bumper stickers on our cars to celebrate our new rankings.

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